<small>by Alex Greenberger</small>
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At least the writers of “Alcatraz” changed their trite formula a little bit this week. “Johnny McKee” is the first episode that features a prisoner who doesn’t repeat the same exact crime three times in the same episode. This time, the Alcatraz prisoner is more unique in his murders.
In what can only be described as a “decent” episode, “Johnny McKee” centers on a killer who poisons his victims. Unlike the other six episodes of “Alcatraz” thus far, Johnny McKee feels like a much more three-dimensional character. He seems to actually feel emotions—for example, he is a bit of a chemistry geek and he still holds a grudge against the football team from his high school. McKee even has a slight (and poorly intermingled) connection with the ongoing Tommy Madsen storyline. There is actually some substance to be had in this episode, though still not enough.
For once, I also felt that McKee changed over the course of the episode. I even felt like I understood why McKee was metamorphosing. (If the writers are allowed to shamelessly throw in Ovid references, I should be allowed to do the same!) The climactic flashback in which Dr. Sangupta unfairly grills McKee, forcing him to reveal why he holds a picture of a burned girl in a box, felt earned and actually quite interesting.
But still, I wonder, wouldn’t “Alcatraz” be the exact same show without the flashbacks? Aren’t the flashbacks just a way to buy up time and fill the 43-minute requirement that FOX sets for its writers? It would seem that way. The flashbacks in “Alcatraz,” unlike those of, say, “Lost” or “FlashForward,” are not very telling. The scenes set in 1960 remain separated from the central criminal from each episode. Sure, they shed a little a light on each prisoner’s character and personality, but still, they hardly feel worth watching. They’re boring too, and they fracture what could be a more cohesive narrative.
If we can get past the pointlessness of the flashbacks, and I can ignore it, the storytelling of “Johnny McKee” was still mediocre. I was immediately lured into the episode by the first scene, in which Hauser asks the doctor at neo-Alcatraz to find a way to resurrect a comatose Lucy. At that point, I wanted to see more—I really thought that we might get a little more mythology than usual. But still, the writers continue to move the more interesting, overarching story arcs at a glacial pace. By the end of the episode, the doctor has gotten nowhere and Lucy still feels comatose. So what was the point, then, of the opening and closing?
It’s hard to say. “Alcatraz” feels a bit aimless a lot of the time. “Johnny McKee,” one of the show’s better episodes, ironically exposes a lot of the time squandering that this show does. “Alcatraz” really could take a cue or two from “Awake,” whose commercials reveal more mythology in 30 seconds than “Alcatraz” has in seven episodes. Or maybe it could even look to “The River,” a show that focuses more on action than bigger storylines. That’s a good way of getting out of stalling things, I suppose.
Basically, “Alcatraz” makes a lot of excuses for poor storytelling that I’m not buying. “Johnny McKee” is a step in the right direction, though knowing the writers of “Alcatraz,” it is a step that will generally be ignored next week.
Alex Greenberger is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.